In the U.S., consumers believe they have a right to know about their food. Just look at the battle over labeling GMO foods, which is often referred to as the Right-to-Know movement, and you'll see that we're serious about being informed when it comes to what we put in our bodies. But, in the global economy, the U.S. is sometimes subject to international rules and laws.
Yesterday, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that certain provisions of the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) violate international trade law, and so our right to know about where our meat originates is now at risk.
What is Country of Origin Labeling?
In the United States, the USDA requires mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). "Muscle cut and ground meats: beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat and chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng" all fall under COOL. This labeling lets U.S. consumers know where animals or fish are born, raised, slaughtered or caught. For plant-based foods, it lets consumers know where they were grown.
Why COOL is important
This is key for people who want to know where their food originates for a variety of reasons. Maybe they want to buy only food from the United States. Perhaps they oppose the conditions that animals are placed under in a certain country, or they oppose the working conditions of those that raise, grow or process the food.
It could be that they know certain pesticides and fertilizers are used (or not used) in a country, and they want to buy produce based on that knowledge. Sometimes, produce grown in another country is safer than that grown in the U.S., according to Consumer Reports, and informed consumers would rather buy cantaloupe from Honduras or Mexico because of its lower risk of pesticide residue.
Or, it could be because food from a certain country becomes tainted for a short while, such as after an earthquake left unstable conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, and some of the country's food was contaminated with radiation.
Why there's opposition to COOL
As a consumer, it may seem silly that there is opposition to Country of Origin Labeling. What's wrong with people knowing where there food comes from? But it's not consumers who have the problem, it's the meat industry. According to Food Safety News, the U.S. meat industry opposes COOL, saying "it invites international sanctions against trading meat in the U.S., as U.S. customers would possibly shy away from foreign-raised meat." In 2013 Canada and Mexico challenged COOL through the WTO. Their challenge is largely based on the same argument.
What the WTO ruling means
According to U.S. News and World Report, the U.S. has already revised COOL labels to try to comply with the WTO, but organization rejected those revisions last year. The U.S. appealed those rejections and yesterday's ruling was a rejection of that appeal. The U.S. COOL labels need to change further or be done away with all together.
Tim Reif, chief counsel for the U.S. Trade Representative, said the administration is "considering all options going forward, and will continue to consult with members of Congress and interested members of the public regarding possible next steps."
Republicans in Congress who side with the meat industry are already lining up to repeal COOL. Texas Rep. Mike Conaway and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, are leading the movement to side with the meat industry instead of the public and their right to know about their food.
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